Conversation at the United Nations

by Arthur W. Anderson

While serving Bethesda Covenant Church in New York City for two years, my eyes were opened. Our congregation met at the Church Center for the UN on Sunday mornings for worship.

At our introductory service, we were honored to have East Coast Conference Superintendent, Rev. C. Leslie Strand, and Dr. Carl Soule, head of the Church Center, welcome us with greetings. I wondered where our future would take us. I would like to report that we had tremendous crowds and all of upper New York City, including the UN delegation, was talking about it. Not so. But we did have all the old Bethesda friends, occasional UN delegates, and a few drop-ins now and then. Delegates from Iceland worshipped with us several times. Others from Norway came as well. Our small and more elderly congregation was very faithful.

I soon discovered that we were very close to the heartbeat of the world. From my office on the tenth floor of the Church Center of the United Nations (CCUN) I looked at the United Nations building across the street. Dr. Soule put me on the unpaid staff at the Center. I worked with representatives from many denominations across the country. One of our privileges was to attend briefings by UN leaders. I realized then the overwhelming task, one of even greater concern than keeping peace, was to help poor families in many forgotten nations. The UN helps suffering children out of danger and back to health. It deals with problems we seldom think about. People who doubt the United Nations should thank the loving God that there is an institution of human concern to help where we do not and where we often prefer to close our eyes.

One ordinary morning, I got a call from Miss Carlson, a flight attendant from California. A Covenant girl, she had developed a friendship with a UN delegate from Jordan. She asked me if I would like to have lunch with Muhammud El Farra. Eureka! Would I!!! Oh, yes! Days later the phone rang. Dr. Muhammud was on the line and he invited me to lunch in the delegates dining room at noon the next day. Honored and excited? You bet!!

At lunch, Dr. Muhammud told me that he had received three death threats that morning. They were all from members of the Jewish Defense League in New York City. It seems that it was not always safe for him in New York. As we ate and conversed, he posed a question with theological implications. “Why do you Christians favor the Jews who do not believe in Jesus while we Muslims do?” I was taken by surprise. I do not recall my answer. But I have thought a lot about it since. For example, why was he so concerned that I understand how Muslims identify with Jesus? One reason, of course, is the antagonism between Muslims and Jews but beyond that, I think he wanted Christians to understand the respect Muslims have for Jesus, that Muslims do not have to reject Jesus to follow Mohammed. Christian scholar Dr. Jaraslov Pelikan confirms that for Muslims the person of Muhammud is not the counter part to Jesus supporting what Dr. Muhammud asserted. The Ambassador and I acknowledged that all three faiths trace their roots to Abraham. So, where do we go from here?

I think the Ambassador’s concern was to find genuine grounds for coming together in faith. That concern has never been more needed than now. We Christians seem to be using our faith to separate ourselves from our “enemies” or seek a reason to destroy them. We need to remember that “…God did not send his Son into the world to condemn but to save the world through him” (John 3: 17).

I think the Ambassador knew a lot about Jesus. I think he understood that the love revealed in Christ can bring people and nations together. Could it be that most Muslims know more about Jesus than we realize? Do we believe that the love revealed by Christ can bring people and nations together?